Yesterday Steam rolled out an entirely new section in their games categories called Early Access. This category is meant to allow players to literally play a game while it’s still in development, giving them, well, early access to the game before its eventual release.
Some of the titles already appearing in this Early Access category include Arma III, Kerbal Space Program, Kenshi, and Prison Architect, all games that have not released a proper, gold-state game in the traditional sense.
Being that it’s a somewhat revolutionary idea, the question remains: why would developers want to do this with their games? And furthermore, what does this suggest for gaming in the future?
It should be noted that this isn’t the first time a game has chosen to do this. One of the most notable titles that ever granted its players “early access” is the Mojang blockbuster Minecraft, a game that is essentially in perpetual beta and still rolling out new patches and updates on a regular basis.
So why would developers want to allow players entry into their game before it’s a finished product? Really, the answer to this is found in the tagline of the category itself on Steam: when you’re allowed early access to a game, you can “discover, play, and get involved with games as they evolve.”
Like any other revolutionary move within the industry, there are both good and bad sides to this model of game distribution. Of course, it seems somewhat shady to charge gamers a fee in order to play a product that isn’t even completed. To do so would be like ordering a meal at a restaurant and eating it in small pieces as the chef makes note of your complaints and makes different parts of the course. In our society, we’re used to exchanging money for one complete product, and doing anything other than that seems like a foreign idea on the surface.
But then, there’s a compelling argument to be made about how the idea of early access games goes to further the idea of games as services rather than products. Minecraft is an amazing example of this; fans play the game and request updates, which are in turn churned out by the development staff.
Early Access games can help developers in a big way as well, as each of them come with an emphasis on contacting game makers about bugs or other technical issues that could theoretically be nipped in the bud before becoming a full-blown problem for gamers later on. It’s a bit like a beta, but takes place during a much more critical time of development than the standard open or closed access to a game prior to its release. And being that tester staff isn’t always something small studios can afford to employ, it offers some help by way of giving you a host of people willing to put up with and report issues you might not have seen in the early development stages.
This also gives gamers the chance to be a part of the development process in a more meaningful and interesting way. Think about it; you’re playing a game in its alpha state, communicating with developers and forging a certain relationship that a standard boxed copy product wouldn’t allow for. This could potentially create an entirely new dimension to the gaming community as a whole, allowing both the consumers and the creators to interact with each other in a way that directly affects different aspects of the game itself.
On the same note as the discussion of games as services, early access games not only allows players to play a game, it gives them the chance to be a part of its creation and to take some small amount of ownership in its production. It takes the traditional model of purchasing completed copies and turns it upside down by tearing down the wall between both the player and the creator. And this could be a good thing.
Of course, there are different parts of the formula that will need to be hammered out over time. What justifies a gamer putting money into the product to essentially be a tester for developers? What will have to be done to entice more people to come over and either put their games up on this or take part in it themselves? And will this deliver the desired results that developers are looking for?
The examples of games like Minecraft and even Dota 2 both show us that this is a model that could potentially work. We won’t know about all the benefits and downsides each of the games in this early access Steam category until it’s been able to exist for a time, but it still shows that, alongside options like free-to-play, there is a growing possibility that the way business is conducted in the gaming industry is about to change in a big, big way. And I’d wager that change is coming soon.
What are your thoughts on Steam’s early access games? Share them in the comments below!